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Andrea A. Lunsford

Winter Solstice

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Dec 22, 2016

There are many reasons to observe the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which falls on Wednesday, December 21 in 2016.  I hope to be at a friend’s home, which was designed to catch the light in special ways at noon on the solstice, so I am hoping for some special effects from Mother Nature.  The solstice leads up to Hanukkah, which begins on December 24, and to Christmas the next day and then Kwanzaa on the 26th


In what has been a dark season for me and many others, I am wishing peace and light for everyone.  I will be thinking, through all these holidays, of students everywhere and hoping that the right to an education will be a human right, all around the world.


In the words of Leonard Cohen, I am going to ring every bell that will ring, and seek out the light wherever I can:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.      

                 --Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”



[Photo: bells by deshkhanna on Pixabay]

Kitten touching a mirror, with the caption Time for ReflectionI kicked off this term by setting some New School Year’s Resolutions for myself, following the model of David Gooblar’s 4 Resolutions for the New Semester on Chronicle Vitae. Overall, my focus was on building more community (and by extension, participation) and improving assessment.


Now that I have reached the midpoint in my school year, it’s time for some reflection on what I have accomplished and what I still need to work on. I’ll address my ten goals from the fall one-by-one:


  1. Increase class participation. Oddly enough, the Digital Design Journals that I added to my course led to more interaction among students. I intended the journals to give students more practice in analyzing digital texts, which they did accomplish. Each student also presented a journal entry to the course, which led to great full-class discussions of rhetoric and design. I need to figure out how to accomplish the same engagement in my online courses.

  2. Give students more choice. I asked my technical writing students to Choose Their Own Projects, but I need to revise the assignment a bit. In particular, I need to make some Changes to My Coursework Proposal Assignment, which invites students to choose their assignments. I also need to do some work to ensure that they are stretching themselves with new genres they have no experience with.

  3. Switch to Pass/Fail grading. I did use Pass/Fail grading extensively in both courses I taught. The system isn’t perfect yet, however. Toward the end of the term, there was no time for revising, undermining the entire system. I wasn’t comfortable with failing students in the courses when their work didn’t achieve B-level standards. I have to build in more structure to ensure that students have time for revising failing work.

  4. Give feedback more quickly. The Pass/Fail system helped me out with my speed. I zipped through grading for all in-class work and weekly writing activities. Using mini-conferences more in my face-to-face class helped me provide lots of feedback as students quickly needed it. I need to figure out how to bring that dynamic to the fully-online courses.

  5. More formative feedback. I am doing better on this goal. When students did turn work in early enough or consulted me on drafts, I worked on providing constructive criticism and challenging them to improve their work. I need to do more for this goal, though. The timing complicates things—when I don’t receive work until the last minute, formative feedback is useless. There’s no time for revision, so students won’t use the advice.

  6. Ask students to track their own work. I added a participation log assignment to ask students to spend more time Tracking Their Participation. In addition, I developed a Participation Log Analysis Assignment to help them evaluate their participation in the course.

  7. Encourage more (or better) reflection. I need to spend more time on this goal in the spring. I asked students for reflection statements when they turned in their major projects; however, I haven’t done much to improve the process. I am going to work on integrating reflection more with the structures that encourage students to turn drafts in earlier.

  8. Add videos to online courses. I started the Fall Term with a WebEx session where I walked students through the course website and answered some basic questions. Only two students were present during the video, not surprising given that we share no common time when we can meet. Worse yet, I never managed to edit the video and post it online, so only those two students benefited. There are definite challenges. For example, I need to find $170 to buy Camtasia, so that I can edit footage properly. I think the videos are worth it, but it is a harder goal to achieve.

  9. Add an AMA session. I added an Ask Me Anything session, to all my classes this fall, as I explained in my Inviting Students to “Ask Me Anything” post. The discussion went really well. Seeing the questions students asked probably told me as much about them as my answers reveals about me. I’m definitely going to keep it as part of the beginning of all my courses.

  10. Encourage community. Around mid-October, I tried Organizing Online Writing Groups for my classes. I asked them to connect with one another for feedback and support as they needed it. The strategy still needs work. The biggest problem has been that students waited until the last moment to post to each other. The assignment led more to checking off a requirement than connecting and building community. I think it can be successful, but I’ll need to do more work to make it happen.


Overall, I accomplished a lot during this fall. There are still several places where I need to do more, but I’m happy with my progress so far. How about you? Was your fall term successful? What are you looking forward to doing next term? Leave me a comment below and let me know.



Credit: Kitten Meme created on the ICanHazCheeseburger site

In this series of posts, I am looking at what we can learn from peer feedback practices in other disciplines. Lynn McNutt talked to me about peer feedback in acting.


My chat with Lynn focused largely on the logistics of peer feedback in the acting classroom, but she did make one comment that continues to stick with me: “I feel like I have become better as an actor once I became a teacher, because I used to skip steps.”  She went on to explain that teaching brings it back to basics, and that process helps her as well.


I do know that I too have become a better writer from having taught writing.  I have a better sense of how to do what I do as an academic because I have spent so much time trying to explain it to people who have no idea how to do it.  I’ll end this semester by keeping this post brief, but I wonder - do you find the same?


Miriam Moore

Post-term Reflections

Posted by Miriam Moore Expert Dec 21, 2016

Allison Adams wrote an article titled “Helping Faculty Find Time to Think” for the Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of weeks ago. In it, she suggests that faculty development programs need to support more than scholarly output; instead, they can “foster rich pockets of time and space for faculty members to think, talk, and write about what they do. . . [and] create discrete, accessible opportunities for quiet conversation and stillness of mind.”


As a composition instructor, I have a wealth of data from this past semester: essays, reflections, emails, and questions from students, along with my own notes, jotted on handouts or sticky notes – or emailed from my phone as a quick reminder to think about an insight in a quiet hour. I also have a stack of articles and book chapters waiting for a lull in my schedule, an opportune moment for reflection.


But I am afraid that once again, I’ve left myself little margin for such reflections. The 5/5 teaching load at my college offers few quiet moments during the semester.  Finals, of course, are not alone in consuming our time in mid-December.  Our annual performance and professional development goals are due, and there are accreditation reports looming. My family would also like a bit of attention during the holidays – there are cookies to be baked, pot-lucks to attend, and gifts to purchase.  


And yet reflection is critical.  I have pushed my students again and again this term to reflect intentionally and explicitly on their rhetorical choices, their writing process, their shifting understanding of how words, reading, and writing interrelate.  When they have complained, I have reminded them that we make time for that which is valuable to us; the meta-rhetorical assignments invite students to discover the value of the practice of reflection, in hopes that they will continue after the class, when there are no points to be earned but insights yet to be discovered.


I believe that quiet reflection and review of my semester data will yield insights that make me a better writer and a better teacher, so I will carve out some dedicated time over the next three weeks, before I write spring syllabi, to think about what I am learning.


How do you handle reflections? Do you keep a teaching journal? Do you review student compositions and the assignments which generated them? Do you make teaching notes? In what format or medium?  I am looking for a different approach to my reflections this year, and I would love to hear what others do.


Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? Join the Macmillan Community to get involved (it’s free, quick, and easy)!

Recently, I was having a meeting with a friend at a local coffee shop to hand him copies of Working, a book in which his writing and his writing group had been featured. Our conversation soon turned, however, to what he was writing about now, what new projects he had undertaken.


His life, he said, had become centered around supporting the children of Somalian refugees. He was to think about how a focus on writing might not only help them in their studies, but enable them to tell their story to a wider public at this fraught political moment. He also wanted to help children support their parents documenting their own journey out of political turmoil and into the United States. He wanted everyone to see their humanity, how we are all equal.


Maybe, he wondered, we might work on this together.


I am sure that many of us have such moments. Moments which speak to our belief in the public power of writing and seem to offer opportunities for our classrooms to connect with an exigent moment – here, the public debate over immigration. And often, we have to decide whether this is a project that can support both the community and our students. 


I’ve developed a rough set of questions I ask myself at such moments before deciding. And if you are facing such decisions, I hope they will be helpful.


1. Is the work important?

Everyone will define “important” differently. I believe something is important if it offers the chance to change public dialogue in a specific location or if it will lead to a possible change in public policy. Ideally, a project would do both. At the outset, I don’t ask whether it is important to my student’s education. I try to keep my lens on its importance to the community’s goals and values.


2. Do I have a strong relationship with the individual proposing the partnership?

I also need to know how this person works, creates plans, implements strategies, and responds to crises. The person does not have to be perfect – I’m certainly not – but if I have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses, I will better understand the specific type of work required of me.


3. Does this partnership work align with the goals of my assigned courses over the upcoming academic year as well as my department goals?

I then consider how it might support classroom or departmental goals. I explore if the type of writing/literacy work necessary for the project (determined in consultation with my partner) aligns with the goals of my assigned courses (determined by my department). I also consider who the students will be in class (freshman, writing majors, graduate students). If I believe I can ethically link my classes to the project, I then consider how the project might support current departmental initiatives (which isn’t necessary, but can help bring additional faculty into the project).


4. Is there adequate funding?

I now consider any budget needs. My strategy here is to develop the least expensive version of the project possible, then if more money is raised you can expand the work. You know, though, that at least some version of the project is possible. I then determine when the funding will be needed and develop a plan with my partner on how we will raise the money and, often, how much funding we will need before we can begin a project linked to my class.


5. Is there a clear ending to the project?

Some partnerships can exist productively for years – such as the writers group with my friend. I always, though, try to articulate clear endings to any partnership – such as completing a book. This allows you to ethically end your work with a community. It also, allows you to use that moment to assess the strengths/weaknesses of the partnership. Before you continue or expand the work, it is important to assess what has occurred. Clear endings allow such assessment.


I suppose the question hanging out there is “Did I agree to join my friend’s project with Somalian refugees?”


My impulse is to say “yes” immediately. But I also need to remember that it is not about my impulses, about what I might find exciting. It is about the community’s goals, about their agenda for change. It’s about whether the partnership can enable my students to understand the political responsibilities of joining such efforts.  Ultimately, that is, I believe deciding to start a new partnership is about moving from the excitement inherent in the impulse to “do good” to the sustained work of joining personal and institutional resources to a community’s effort to create systemic change, to bend the arc of justice a little closer towards their neighborhood.  


And deciding, I’ve found that takes time.


Stay tuned.

Andrea A. Lunsford

Return of the Oral?

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Dec 15, 2016

Recently I read (but can no longer find!) an article discussing the rise of social media in terms of its relationship to orality. The writer made the point that much of what we read on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites is conversational, deeply inflected by the conventions of speech and oral culture (with more and more emojis offering substitutes for emphasis, tone, etc.). I’ve written before about Walter Ong’s notion of secondary orality and its influence in our hyper-mediated society, and I’ve described what we might call “secondary literacy,” which is literacy infused with orality—as we see today on social media. It’s writing, all right, but writing that aims to be very much like speech.


Like many other teachers of writing, I’m pondering what such shifts mean for our classrooms, for what we teach and how we teach it. In a course on the history of writing, I always began with the struggle for the vernacular in medieval Europe . . . tracing the eventual downfall of Latin and Greek and the rise of indigenous languages/vernaculars. Think of early writers of vernacular languages (Chaucer, e.g.) and you will think of some of the world’s great literature. So hooray for vernaculars!


But it’s seemed to me for some time that social media brings a new sense of “vernacular,” or everyday speech, and its rise has been swift and pervasive. Challenging traditional notions of decorum or civility as well as conventional norms of all kinds, social media writing crests like a huge wave over us, bringing with it experimental uses of language that seem downright magical and innovative as well as threatening (hate-based messages especially).


I have only begun to scratch the surface of this issue, to which I hope to return soon. But right now, I am concerned that in our writing classes we look closely at this “return of the oral” and its implications for how we lead our lives, especially online. Bakhtin writes of “the ability to respond” or “respondability” being key to discourse exchange, and I agree: all of what we write and speak responds in some way to what others have written and said. And we need to take advantage of this ability to respond, to get our voices out there with the messages we care most deeply about. But we also need to talk with our students about responsibility, the ability to be accountable for what we write and speak, to present credible and detailed evidence in support, and to accept consequences attendant upon our words, whether spoken or written.


In a time when very powerful people want to “shut down” parts of the Internet, to move away from “net neutrality” and otherwise police the Net, and when very powerful others want absolutely no curbs on what is posted, then we badly need writing teachers and students everywhere to search for some middle ground that will encourage and reward personal responsibility and to put that responsibility to work in social media writing.


[Photo by Johan Larsson on Flickr]

Jack Solomon

Fake News

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Dec 15, 2016

It has long been a commonplace of cultural studies that the "news" is never an objective presentation of the way things really are, but reflects instead the ideological perspectives of those who present it.  More profoundly, the post-structural paradigm that continues to influence contemporary cultural studies (even if the word "post-structuralism" is beginning to show its age) goes even deeper to argue that reality itself (conventionally presented in scare quotes along the lines of a Derridean erasure) is a social construction without any objective grounding.  But in the wake of the recent revelations concerning what can only be called the "fake news industry"—and the potential effect that it appears to have had on the just-concluded presidential election—I think that it would behoove the practitioners of cultural studies to take "reality" out of scare quotes, because the reign of anti-realism is really getting out of hand.


To say that this will not be happening soon, however, is to risk considerable understatement, because I've made this call before.  Many years ago I published a book (Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, 1988) in which I tried to establish a semiotic alternative to post-structural anti-realism at a time when the sliding signifiers of the Reagan administration were giving the most fact-averse scholars of deconstruction a real run for their money.  And to say that I was not successful would also be to risk considerable understatement.  But I would like, nevertheless, to offer some tips to composition instructors who may be looking for ways to help students distinguish between outright fantasy and defensible reality in an era of "truthiness," "post-facts," and fake news.


To begin with, your students need to be informed that the "news feeds" that they receive on their Facebook pages reflect the same kind of data mining techniques that digital marketers employ.  By spying on the content posted on your Facebook page, Facebook can predict just what sort of news you are likely to want to get.  This not only means that "liberals" will accordingly receive "liberal" news and that "conservatives" will receive "conservative" news, but that liberal or conservative third parties—who have access to Facebook's data mines—can effectively spam your page in the same way that advertisers do—except in this case the spam is "news," not advertising.  The result is an echo chamber effect, within which everyone hears only the news that they want to hear (or already agree with).


So the second thing to realize is that the polarized (and polarizing) "news" situation in America is no longer simply a matter of whether you watch MSNBC or Fox News: these days the social network is the echo chamber, and that is a much trickier thing to resist.  For now it is not some network stranger who is providing you with your news, it is your own friends and family, whom you are lot more likely to trust, no matter what weirdness they send you.  The only way out of this echo chamber, then, is to get off social media and do some research, constantly seeking out multiple sources of —and perspectives on—information, especially when something you hear just doesn't seem very likely.  I'm not saying that unlikely things don't happen in this world, but, as they say in science, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," and so, extraordinary news requires extraordinary levels of active media scrutiny.


Finally, at a time when each side of the great American political divide doesn't trust anything that the other side reports, it is important to recognize that the concoction of fake news is not an ideological monopoly, especially at the extremes, where, to take one all-too-common example, the so-called "false flag" conspiracy narratives of both the left and the right can be disturbingly similar in their levels of sheer evidence-deficient fantasy.


So the best ground for refuting such post-fact fantasies remains good old-fashioned empirical evidence.  But we can't demand such evidence if we insist that there is no empirical reality and that everything is a social construction.  That is why the semiotic paradigm that I use, as influenced by Charles Sanders Peirce, is not a post-structural one.  It accepts a reality outside our sign systems and against which our signs can be tested and evaluated.  Absolute objectivity cannot be theoretically achieved by this paradigm, but it does supply a basis for identifying outright fabrications. In short, in this "post-truth" era, it's high time to get real.

Barclay Barrios

Acting: Emotion

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Dec 14, 2016

In this series of posts, I am looking at what we can learn from peer feedback practices in other disciplines. Lynn McNutt talked to me about peer feedback in acting.


Beyond the need to develop a vocabulary of technique, one of the common themes of my chat with Lynn was emotion.  I found that interesting given that it also popped up quite a bit in my chats with my creative writing and studio art colleagues.  But while those discussions discussed how to bracket emotion in the context of peer feedback and creative activities, removing emotion is far more challenging when it comes to teaching acting.  “They always want to emote all over the place,” Lynn shared, “Come in and cry.  But technique is trying to get something from somebody—that’s your action.”  It’s the combination of emotion and technique that makes acting a powerful craft.  The challenge then is how to negotiate those emotions in feedback practices.


Lynn approaches this challenge through a language of engagement, asking students in the class to pay attention to when they were most engaged and most disengaged while watching a scene.  Students then discuss those moments of engagement using the language of acting they’ve developed in the class.  Focusing on engagement moves the discussion away from student’s emotional response (particularly bored) and towards the effect of the scene, which is where technique offers the most insights.


I’ve noted before that this affective component feels very foreign to me but Lynn’s coupling of emotion and technique does have me thinking about the motivations behind really good academic writing.  In this model, I consider academic writing a function of technique, not simply at the level of language or citation but also in the certain habits of mind that produce arguments or that allow effective analysis of quotation.  And, while I don’t often see an emotional component to student writing, I do feel that passion plays some role.  After all, one has to care about what one is writing about.  At least, I know I have to care about this blog or about Emerging and that care—that emotion—coupled with technique, is what produces the result.  The question then becomes, of course, how to get students to invest in FYC writing.  I haven’t a clue how to go about that.  But thinking about these issues has given me one more avenue of approach, one I intend to explore.


Juliet by Colleen A. Bryant, on FlickrWhen I began teaching, I printed out every call for proposals, chapters, and articles. I carefully highlighted the relevant due dates in neon orange and arranged them in due-date order in a wire basket on my desk. That was the last time that I looked at them until the end-of-the-term purge, when I sorted through all the passed calls and tossed them into the trash.


Decades later, I was following the online version of this process. I dragged every call for proposals, chapters, and articles to a “CFP” folder in Gmail and then at the end of the term, I dragged them into a subfolder I named DEAD. I did try some experiments along the way. I made a “Maybe” folder, for the CFPs that I thought had potential, and there was a “Not Likely” for CFPs that I liked, but didn't think I could respond to. All those CFPs ultimately ended up in the “DEAD” folder too.


I tried organizing things in Evernote. I tried printing them out again. I tried pinning them on Pinterest. I tried pasting notes about them in online sticky notes on my desktop. I tried real sticky notes hung up all over my office. I tried everything I could think of, but somehow nothing worked for me.


I let scores of CFPs pass by, unanswered. Honestly, I felt like quite the failure. Academics all over the world manage to keep track of their CFPs and even replied to them, while I only seemed to figure the calls out too late to respond.

In late September, I added a couple of CFPs that I was interested in to my Google Calendar. Since I look at my calendar several times a day, I saw those CFPs frequently. After a few days of seeing those CFPs, I realized that I had come up with a solution that actually worked for me. I went through my inbox folders and added all the relevant CFPs in rhet/comp, technology, pedagogy, and professional writing. I ultimately added calls for nominations, awards, and association positions, as well.


Once I added all this information, I decided to make the calendar public in case it could help any colleagues. This week, I’m inviting you to take advantage of the calendar as well. You can find my calendar of CFPs by visiting In addition to visiting the whole collection on my website, you can follow simple instructions to  add the entire calendar to your Google calendar and to add individual calls to your Google calendar. I update the calendar about twice a month, adding any CFPs that are posted on the listservs that I subscribe to. If you have a CFP that I missed, you can email it to me.


So, I invite you to heed the call with me. Look through the calendar and find a call that you can respond to. It's a perfect time to make a New Year’s resolution to publish something. I hope you find something that fits you perfectly.



Credit: Juliet by Colleen A. Bryant, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

The end of any semester inspires reflection on successful projects and areas that need improvement. This semester, I hope to take that reflection a step further by making plain what I usually try to keep invisible. I want to write about teaching with depression.  


In offering this story, I do not want to indulge in what the late comedian Stella Young called “inspiration porn.” Trying to recalibrate depression medication was not inspiring. It was painful. I have written a great deal about ADHD (See David Bowie, Difference, and Basic Writing) and how the quality of resilience has inflected my teaching. But I have not written at all about depression, which also impacted my work this year. When I was growing up, depression was greatly misunderstood and largely kept secret from outsiders. “You take life too seriously,” people would say, “just snap out of it.” I did not know why I could not snap out of it. For many years, I internalized the shame of feeling “different” and even “difficult.” My ADHD diagnosis felt liberating, and allowed me better access to understanding difference and difficulty. Depression, hovering over this term in an ongoing fog of sorrow, touched every aspect of my life.


After oral surgery a year ago, my anti-depressant medication seemed to stop working. For months, my doctor and I experimented with trying to find a solution. Since I had taken that medication for several years, recalibration and withdrawal became physically painful. I felt tired all the time. I tried going to bed earlier, and found myself awake before dawn. For the first time in many years, I began drinking coffee again. That also did not work. Coffee lessened the effectiveness of my ADHD medication, and also my resilience. Once I realized what the coffee was doing, I gave it up immediately.


Indeed, ADHD resilience helped me gather up the strength to teach. In class, I knew I could hyper-focus my attention completely on students and writing.  Outside of class and the office, depression took hold. I felt distractible and disorganized. I cried often. It became harder to read, harder to write, and harder to grade. The future felt immensely bleak, even as I knew many people experienced great unhappiness through the long election season. When the symptoms did not abate, I knew that I could not blame everything on the election.


I paid attention to the qualities of unhappiness, afraid to speak out because my depression seemed invisible to others. People commented on my optimistic outlook. Like a cat, I felt an instinct to hide my despair. I did not want to listen to comments I had heard in the past: “Everyone feels bad now.” Or: “You need to stop overthinking everything.” I admired Disability Studies scholars who wrote openly on mental disabilities. I did not yet feel comfortable with that openness, and I carried in my thoughts the lifelong caution that I was raised with: keep depression secret. The difference this year is that I learned how to teach with depression. Or rather, by observing the work my students accomplished as writers, I have more perspective on the nature of secrets.


This year my depression was not invisible, and I cannot keep it secret any longer.  Yes, I made it through the semester, and felt relieved to read the writing that came from time spent with students. The students in my Stretch classes wrote powerful extended definitions of resilience, innovation, and compassion. The essays we read and the TED talks we watched focused on these topics because, despite our differences in age and background, these concepts offered strands of hope. In the Basic Writing Practicum, the graduate students and I designed a pedagogy website, which includes assignments, activities, and annotated bibliographies. We launched the website last week under the title Eclectic Scriveners Writing Beyond Catastrophe.


With the website that evolved from BW Practicum, we focus on the necessity for all teachers to cultivate compassion for our students and also for ourselves: efficacy, creativity, challenge, and difference. On the homepage, we offer this description of our group’s name and of our pedagogical purpose:

Our eclectic group meets—and writes—with the daunting purpose of meeting head-on the crisis that surrounds basic writing, to show how basic writing may be used effectively in college settings, to show that for as many limits it implies and places for/on students, it offers just as many possibilities.”


To name the crisis allows us to honor the struggle. Depression is not a metaphor, and neither is Basic Writing.

Much ado of late in response to one Scottie Nell Hughes, “News” Director of the Tea Party “News” Network: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” From all the online chatter in response to Hughes’s “jaw-dropping statement,” you’d think that

  1. this is a new idea;
  2. Hughes is a force to be reckoned with; and
  3. reckoning with her word stream is a good way to spend your time.

My responses, in order: it isn’t; she isn’t; it isn’t.


After the election, Ann and I were doing the kind of joking around you do when the world is ending. The search-for-a-way-to-make-the-present-bearable kind of joking. That’s the magical thing about laughter: it can help one gather strength and find community again; it can make what seems certain, pliable and what seems central, peripheral.


For some, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show performed this function on a nightly basis. Plenty of laughing there, for sure. Did you see Stewart last night? my students would ask. (Less so now, with Noah.) And now, after the election, one can even be lectured to by the show’s former host about the hypocrisy of liberals labeling everyone who voted for the president-elect a racist. In a discursive environment where one side contends there are no longer facts, arguing is a fool’s errand; so, too, is arguing with an icon of political comedy, now resting in comfortable retirement, about the significance of the fact that his neighbors think the most pressing problem at present is the prospect of higher insurance premiums. These are not arguments that can be won. [1]


Our students have long found refuge in the claim that everything is just a matter of opinion, and its corollary, opinions are something everyone has a right to. You can call that stance “post-fact” or “no-fact,” but those labels conceal what’s most important about claims of this kind: they are all founded on ignorance. You can’t argue someone out of a state of ignorance, but we can, as teachers, get our students to write their way out the foggy world of self-stupefaction by getting them to write their way into a world where facts exist and must be contended with.


What Ann and I argue in Habits is that creativity emerges out of deep engagement with facts. There is no way to assign this deep engagement: it emerges when we craft a sequence of assignments that gets students to experience what it feels like to think seriously about issues of genuine import. These experiences aren’t scalable; they arise when, as writers, we come up against a reality that is simultaneously incontrovertible and incomprehensible. When we give our students a chance to have this experience, we create a space where writing ceases to be a mere tool for arguing what one thought all along and becomes, instead, a technology for thinking new thoughts.


In my classes, my students always know what hard facts I’m writing about; I tell them so they will see that writing is so hard because it is always about encountering the limits of your own understanding; it is always about confronting your own ignorance.


Currently, I’m deep into a research project on Abu Ghraib. Here’s a fact I can’t escape:


Nine of the eleven soldiers who were eventually court martialed for abusing Iraqi detainees at the prison in Abu Ghraib were members of the Army reserves. Weekend warriors. One minute you’re a cashier at the local grocery store in Cumberland, Maryland, the next you’re stationed just outside of Baghdad, assisting in the effort to police and control a prison population whose proportions are distressingly amorphous. These reservists didn’t speak Arabic. They claim never to have been taught about the Geneva Conventions. They gave the detainees nicknames. Gomer Pyle. Mr. Burns. Big Bird. Gilligan. The nicknames came from their shared storehouse of cultural references—from what might be called their “collective unconscious” or their “imagined community.” What they shared, the reservists and enlisted alike, was the experience of watching TV.


This last fact interests me. What to make of it? It is incontrovertibly true and, at the same time, incomprehensible. It is, in short, an invitation to write.


[1] El Burro, who never listens to a word I say, did exactly this. You can read his effort to pin his tail of disapproval on Jon Stewart here.

In the days since the recent election, several articles have listed terms that will never be the same: nasty woman, locker-room talk, deplorables, Buttercup. Who would have thought that labeling yourself a "nasty woman" would become a badge of honor? Or that the Tic Tac company would have to denounce a candidate? Or that Skittles and taco trucks and Cheetos would take on loaded meanings? (Biden: I left a bag of Cheetos in the bathroom. Obama: Why, Joe? Biden: In case he wants to powder his nose.) But that’s how connotations work.  A term takes on added meaning—meaning beyond its dictionary definition—because of context. The ugliest election in recent memory provided plenty of that as civility and decorum went out the window.


As for dictionary definitions, it is enlightening to examine the words most often looked up during the campaign, as reported by Merriam-Webster. Among the first on the list: trumpery, presumptive, glass ceiling, plagiarism, oligarchy (and socialism), redacted, bigot, hombre, braggadocious. The word searched most often on election night? Fascism.  The top look-ups since Trump was elected, in order, are: fascism, racism, socialism, resurgence, xenophobia, and misogyny. A common response to that list was that it is too bad people didn’t look up those words before the election.  One suggestion is that there has been a spike in look-ups for them because of the number of Americans organizing against the President-elect.  That would also explain why the word emoluments has suddenly entered the political vocabulary and why more people than ever now know what the fourth section of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment says. There is even a Tumblr for Trumpgrets. Its purpose: “to screenshot the tweets of Trump voters as they slowly come to the realization that a billionaire with a hair trigger and zero political experience mightn’t be the best person to run their country.” The Oxford Dictionary chose as its 2016 word of the year the word post-truth.


I’m sure that Trump’s team are now hard at work reinforcing the message that words truly do have consequences—and even more profound consequences when one is President or President-elect, even if they come in the form of late-night tweets. The best advice that Clinton ever gave him was to delete his account. Context does make a difference. Trump’s tweets criticizing China have alarmed foreign affairs experts. CNN reported that Victor Gao, a Chinese international relations expert, advised “that Trump could say what he liked as President-elect but his comments would have huge global consequences once in office.”  He added, “We hope President-elect Donald Trump . . . will handle himself with respect, accountability and responsibility and become a force of peace and stability rather than making whimsical and capricious remarks aimed at surprising the world.”


Credit: Nasty Women Win Elections | Mike Licht, | Flickr 

Andrea A. Lunsford

Writing to think!

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Dec 8, 2016

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Writing Program and Writing Center at Wake Forest University and, as always, I wanted a full tour: it is endlessly fascinating to me to see what goes on in writing centers and programs and I especially love looking at what’s posted on the walls.


In this case, I had a chance to meet with undergrad tutors, who were eloquent and thoughtful and deeply into their work. They told me that they’d learned how to get students to look beyond editing for surface errors, to concentrate on the substance and structure of what they wanted to say, to know when to offer friendly sympathy and when to push a little harder, to listen “between the lines” to students, and to ask open-ended questions that can lead to genuine dialogue. I was inspired, as I always am, by how seriously these students took their work but also by their great good humor.


Some of the tutors had declared a new interdisciplinary writing minor, which will provide students…

with opportunities to practice, refine, and extend their skills as academic, professional, and creative writers. The curriculum, composed of new and existing courses in rhetoric and writing, as well as writing-enhanced courses across the disciplines, prepares students to participate in various writing situations both inside and outside the academy. Because writing enhances reflection, reinforces learning, and improves critical thinking, the Writing Minor will provide students with the skills they need to excel in their majors, their professions, and their lives as engaged citizens.

Writing minors (and majors) are springing up all over the country, and it’s encouraging to see the innovative approaches being taken. In this case, I was impressed with the inclusion of creative writing; the students I spoke with spoke passionately about wanting to experience a full range of writing, from poems to press releases, and such programs promise to offer that range. With 18 units of required coursework, students with this minor should get a strong sense of themselves as writers—and several students told me they intended to take substantially more than 18 units in the minor if they could find a way to do so.


As I left the Center, I overheard a tutor and student talking animatedly about an assignment in progress. The student said he was “beginning to see what my main argument should be here,” and “huh . . . this is really helping me think.” That’s a line every writing center tutor or consultant loves to hear, and in this writing center it was echoed on a bulletin board where students had been invited to finish the sentence “I write because . . .”



What can we learn by exploring peer feedback practices in other disciplines?  That’s the central question driving this series of posts.  So far I’ve looked at creative writing and the studio arts.  In these next posts, I will consider acting.


Lynn McNutt is relatively new to Florida Atlantic University, but she’s already made quite an impression.  She’s energetic and enthusiastic, funny and approachable, and engaging - all qualities she brings to her classes, to the college, and to our football games (Go Owls!).  She’s also smart and a great director (I was entranced by her Lear). I had the chance to sit down with Lynn and talk about how peer feedback practices are developed in the acting classes she teaches for our department of Theatre and Dance, and one of the themes that first jumped out at me is the development of vocabulary.


Logistically these practices feel quite different, since Lynn doesn’t allow peer feedback until the end of the sophomore year.  The lack of a language with which to offer real feedback, a common theme in this post series, is a primary reason for waiting so long.  Students immediately want to say why a scene was good or bad, Lynn notes, without knowing why it was good or bad.  Thus, she spends a lot of time in the introductory classes instilling a vocabulary for talking about acting.  She’ll direct students’ attention by asking specific questions about a scene: “Do you see a difference between this way and that way?” Those questions direct responses, but also begin to introduce a vocabulary for talking about acting.  She then gives her feedback to the actor in front of the whole class so that they can see that vocabulary in action.  The development of such a vocabulary is a central pedagogical goal.  Acting is a result of a “soul connection to the technique” and while her students arrive with plenty of soul and emotion, what they need to develop is a way of talking about technique.


Lynn’s approach echoes a very common theme: students can’t give productive feedback without training on what is good and why it’s good.  I feel like we do a lot of that work in our own classrooms, and it’s one of the reasons I use peer revision sheets.  Often, I tie these sheets in to a particular element of writing that we’ve been discussing in the classroom.  For example, if we’ve been discussing how to make an argument, then I will ask students not only to identify the argument in a peer’s paper but then to also evaluate that argument using the language we’ve developed in class.  Vocabulary, in this sense, becomes a central goal of my classes, as well.


Lynn uses a host of handouts and worksheets about technique and also recognizes that students might arrive with a varied vocabulary of acting (some will have learned about “intentions,” while some would know about “goals” - and still others would be familiar with “goals”—all more or less the same thing).  I found that component familiar, too, as some of the students in my class will be used to thinking in terms of the “thesis” of a paper while some will know “argument.”  I prefer instead to talk about “project,” the thing they’re trying to accomplish in the paper.  But knowing the vocabulary students already have is a great way to transition them into the language of the classroom, a technique Lynn and I both share.


Chatting with Lynn helps me to recognize the importance of peer revision in developing a set of meta-skills around writing, skills that are centered around developing a language to talk about academic writing, both what it is and how it works and what makes it effective.  I plan on refining my focus there.


More from acting next time!



I’ve written before about What’s the Story: the Vermont Young People Social Action Team and about some of the terrific work they’ve done (such as a video called Breaking Binary, which I hope you have seen). An experiential and digital storytelling course for middle- and high-schoolers, WTS is in its third highly successful year. As they put it in a recent update,


WTS is working with 30 learners, aged 12 to 18 and representing 10 secondary schools in Vermont, 11 adult instructional team members, and an additional 25 dedicated academics and social change agents particpiating in our blogging. At last count, there have been 257 meaning-making blog posts on issues of social concern, twice as many comments, and almost 8,000 visits to our site and narrative research, since mid-September.


I love WTS especially because the students are involved in identifying and acting on issues related to social justice and change. Much more than an ordinary “course,” this project brings young folks together in retreats, during which they propose issues for study and action, 5-minute “pitches” they work on and practice and then present before the whole group, hoping to inspire others to join them. A thoroughly collaborative project, WTS asks students to consider how narratives or stories told by others affect their lives and to conceive of and compose better stories of their own, stories more true to who they know they are. Working with Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network, these students are already writers/authors, thinking about and debating social issues of personal and national (and international) significance and making their voices heard on these issues. I would love to see schools in northern California band together to mount such a course of study and action, very much in the spirit of the course I taught at Bread Loaf last summer on Writing and Acting for Change. Goodness knows, we need these young people and their ideas today more than ever.


I hope you’ll check out their website. If you do, you’ll see additional photos, but here’s one of the group at the retreat mentioned above. Hooray for What’s the Story!


Jack Solomon

Top of the Class

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Dec 1, 2016

Who would have ever thought that a Broadway musical about a man best known today for having been killed in a duel with Aaron Burr (and who was also one of the founders of nascent American corporate capitalism) should have become the hottest thing on Broadway since Cats?  But then again, who would have thought that a Broadway musical would get itself involved in what is arguably the bitterest American election since 1860?  That is exactly what Hamilton has done, and therein lies a semiotic tale.


The story here begins not with the creation and triumphal run of this Tony-record-smashing production, but with an event that took place after its creator had left the cast for other projects.  This event, of course, was the reading of a statement by a cast member to Vice President-elect Pence, who happened to be in attendance at a post-election performance.  That statement, which did not appear to have upset Pence (it basically implored the incoming Trump administration to play nice), did upset the President-elect, who took the matter to Twitter, where he appears to conduct the greatest portion of his communication with the American people.


The ironies—indeed, outright paradoxes—of this whole situation can hardly be overstated.  First, we have the paradox of the play itself:  a paean to diversity and inclusiveness whose ticket prices now average $411, and whose premium seats run $849.   The ironic symbolism of this—in the light of an election in which the Democratic candidate overwhelmingly carried America's centers of post-industrial prosperity, while the Republican candidate captured the Rust Belt—should not be lost on anyone.  Simply stated, while race relations most certainly played a key role in the election, so did socioeconomic inequality.  And while the billionaire standard bearer of the traditional party of the country club set saw this and exploited it in a campaign aimed at working-class Democrats who could hardly afford Hamilton's price of admission, the Democrats did not. 


Then there is the paradoxical fact that the Democratic candidate out-fundraised and outspent her Republican rival by a considerable margin.  Making use of social media (especially Twitter) instead, a capitalist tycoon struck a populist note by communicating directly with voters rather than through expensively staged, and highly mediated, advertisements.  Whether this populist strategy was truly authentic is open to debate; that it was successful is not.


In short, the traditional party of class privilege won (at least in part) by playing upon the often-neglected emotions of social class, while the traditional (at least since FDR) party of the common folk, got blindsided by class resentment.  And while one can certainly understand why the cast of America's most celebrated stage entertainment would want to take advantage of a chance to speak directly to a man whose election appears to contradict everything that their performance stands for, the upper-class aura of the venue for their message was not, perhaps, the most effective setting for it.